Embedded databases step forward

As the field for makers of big, enterprise-class databases has thinned to a handful of major players -- Oracle, IBM (DB2), Sybase, Microsoft (SQL Server) and Informix lead here -- the market for mobile and embedded databases has suddenly become a hotbed of innovation and competition. Upstart newcomers are crashing the party and established heavyweights are trimming down existing products to exploit a market that is at once old and new. by John K. Waters "When you're dealing with databases at the corporate level," said Anne Thomas Manes, senior analyst at Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group, "you don't want to hire six different database administrators to manage six different databases." This helps to explain the narrowing of options on the big database side.

"Companies have tended to standardize on one -- and only one -- corporate database, which makes it very hard for newcomers to break in at that level," she added. "If you're not Oracle or IBM, you're not really doing very well in that space."

According to a 1999 report from Dataquest, a unit of GartnerGroup, mobile and embedded database developers are currently experiencing a dramatic shift in fortunes. After several years of negative numbers, 1998 saw a year of solid growth in the mobile and embedded database market, which culminated at more than $400 million. Dataquest expects the market to continue growing at a rate of 12.2% annually through 2004.

And while definitions vary slightly, most observers agree that embedded databases come in two basic flavors: application-embedded databases and device-embedded databases.

Application software developers have been inserting databases into their products for at least 20 years, so the concept of application-embedded databases is nothing new. However, because application-embedded databases require much less management than standalone databases -- they are managed entirely or mostly by the applications into which they are embedded -- developers in this space are not facing one of the primary pressures toward consolidation that thinned the corporate DB herd.

"When we're talking about databases embedded in applications, [users] are much more likely to bring more than one into their company," said Thomas Manes. "You don't have to hire a DBA [database administrator] to manage, say, some cash register management system you bought that has a database inside it. If you've got 20 different apps, you might have 20 different databases."

And branding does not matter as much here, either. "It's not like 'Intel inside.' Nobody cares. So we're seeing plenty of opportunity for people to create new [application-embedded] databases for application vendors," she added. "And even though ISVs generally tend to pick one database, there are hundreds of thousands of vendors out there, so there's opportunity for lots of players to be in that space."

A new generation of mobile computing technologies, from palm-sized PDAs to
industry-specific "discrete data-gathering devices," has begun generating demand for very small-footprint, mobile embedded databases. These device-embedded databases represent a new computing paradigm for IT developers charged to support ubiquitous applications -- applications that go anywhere.

At the same time, handheld devices are becoming more feature-rich and network-aware (witness the birth of 3COM's Palm VII, which includes RF capabilities and Web access). Cell phones are evolving into data-collection and input devices. And a wide range of special-purpose terminals and even household appliances are hosting tiny chips with lots of memory.

Dataquest reports that worldwide shipments of handheld computers this year will surpass 5.7 million units, an increase of 47% over last year. Sales of database software for embedded applications are expected to grow from $400 million in 1998 to $451.2 million this year.

Along with these new devices, a new kind of mobile worker -- untethered from the enterprise and conducting business outside the traditional corporate walls -- has begun changing the embedded database picture. Stamford, Conn.-based GartnerGroup expects the burgeoning new mobile workforce to reach a population of 108 million by 2000.

Carolyn DiCenzo, director and principal analyst for Dataquest's Database and Data Warehousing Software Worldwide program, sees the widespread adoption of mobile devices as a principle driver of this growth and a source of opportunities for developers.

"Database management system products are not only becoming a requirement on laptops as the mobile workforce detaches and 'takes it with them,' but also handheld devices are now starting to be used in corporate applications," DiCenzo said in a recent Dataquest report.

The report also underscores the importance of so-called intelligent appliances, which Dataquest expects to create new
opportunities for embedded vendors. For example, the United Kingdom's ICL Ltd. recently debuted a prototype of a computerized refrigerator. The intelligent device features a flat-panel display and bar-code reader that would allow users to scan product containers and build a shopping list. The list could then be uploaded to a database server at a grocery store, which would then deliver those items.

"Intelligent appliances now mean more than telecommunications equipment," writes DiCenzo. "People are talking about vending machines that transmit refill orders automatically and slot machines that keep track of winnings."

Squeezing a DB

Along with these new opportunities, developers of device-embedded databases face significant challenges, not the least of which is the fundamental problem of squeezing a worthwhile DB into the smaller boxes.

"With app-embedded DBs, there really is no footprint limit," said Patricia Seybold's Thomas Manes. "You don't have to give up features and functions to shrink down the size. When I'm running [the application] on, say, a Windows NT server and the database takes up six megabytes, I don't care. But a six-megabyte embedded database on my Palm Pilot would be a problem."

Device-embedded database developers must whittle away services to sculpt a smaller footprint, she explained. "[The device-embedded database] might let you do queries based on primary key, but not based on any field in the database," noted Thomas Manes. "In order to support a query based on any field, you would have to add extra bulk that might preclude you from putting it on the device."

The challenge then becomes one of convincing users that a trimmed-down database with reduced capabilities is worth buying.

"People ask me, 'Who's the competition in this market?'" said Thomas Manes. "I tell them, the file system that's native on the machine. If what I have is a sort of brain-dead database, why do I need it? Why can't I just use the file system that came free on my Palm Pilot? The person who's trying to sell a database into that space has to come up with some valid reason for it."

"We've seen many of our customers use our technology in a number of environments where having the database on the local device is critical," said Chris Kleisath, product management director in the mobile and embedded computing division of Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif. "In a retail situation, for example, if you have the customer standing there with money in hand, you can't very well say, 'Sorry, our back-end server is down, so I can't take your money right now.' That just doesn't fly. They need to have local processing right there."

GartnerGroup has identified Sybase as a leader among mobile and embedded database developers. In a 1999 report, Gartner pegged the company's share of the market at 55%. Sybase, which pioneered the mobile database market, currently dominates this market segment with its Adaptive Server Anywhere (ASA) offering and a deployment technology called UltraLite that enables handheld devices to run the ASA database. Sybase claims more than 400 embedded computing partners worldwide build their
applications on ASA.

Released last spring, UltraLite is a version of Sybase's SQL Anywhere portable database, which reportedly has an installed base of nearly 4 million. UltraLite boasts a tiny footprint (the company calls it a "fingerprint") of about 50K -- one-twentieth the size of SQL Anywhere's 1Mb memory footprint.

Pyxis, a 13-year-old pharmaceutical management company based in San Diego, used Sybase ASA technology as the underlying database engine for its Medstation Rx System 2000, an automated pharmaceutical-dispensing system employed in hospitals and health-care facilities. The system uses personal identification number (PIN) or Biometric ID-controlled entry that permits access to precise amounts of prescribed drugs, and provides full accounting and inventory record keeping for health-care workers.

Nurses log onto the Medstation Rx System with an ID and password, or use a fingerprint-recognition screen; they then select a patient's name from a display and receive the proper medication for that patient, explained John Rodenrys, vice president of research and development at Pyxis. After each transaction, the hospital's master database is updated.

"What our systems are designed to do," said Rodenrys, "is to make sure that the right medicine is given to the right patient, by the right person, at the right time and in the right dosage."

According to Rodenrys, more than 70,000 of these devices are currently in use throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Spain.

Pyxis also uses Sybase ASA technology in its handheld portable data terminals, which nurses use to scan a medication bottle, the nurse's ID badge and the patient's ID bracelet as a final check before medication is administered. The handheld data terminal converses in real time with the Sybase database stored on the system's network.

"This setup is just not going to work without Sybase's [embedded] database," Rodenrys explained. "We have to have close to 100 percent availability. This device has to be able to work even if the network is down. The ability to embed the database is critical."

Cambridge, Mass.-based InterSystems is a database and application-development software company that has long focused on the embedded database market. The company markets Cache, a DBMS it describes as "a post-relational database with a multidimensional data server." Paul Grabscheid, the firm's vice president of strategic planning, describes another challenge for developers of embedded databases, something he calls the "invisibility factor."

"Our customers want a system that works all the time, but which nobody ever knows is there," said Grabscheid. "They want it to be like the plumbing in their house: You definitely want and need it, but you don't get too excited about it and the only time you think about it is when it's not working properly. And then you're really unhappy."

Make mine Java

The past year has seen an enormous amount of activity among developers of mobile and embedded databases. One of the splashier announcements came in September with the Informix acquisition of Cloudscape, the two-year-old creator of a 100% pure Java SQL database management system. Designed to be embedded in client or server applications as a local data manager, the product implements SQL-92 with extensions for Java. Ex-employees from Informix, Oracle and Sybase, and executives from object-relational database company Illustra founded the company three years ago.

PointBase Inc., San Mateo, Calif., also offers a pure Java embedded database. Started by Oracle co-founder Bruce Scott, the company began offering PointBase 2.1 last summer, an upgrade to its Java-based software that offers bi-directional data synchronization between client notebooks and server software. Version 2.1 is compliant with popular database and messaging applications, including IBM DB2, Lotus Notes, Microsoft SQL Server, and Oracle and Sybase databases.

"Outside the enterprise is where the growth is," said Scott. "The current high level of interest and investment in the device side of things isn't because there's a tremendous amount of [products] available today. It's because this is the future. What people see in the device world is that you don't have storage of large amounts of data, but more storage sites. Many more. Instead of a few million servers, 10 years from now we'll be seeing billions of devices. We've just begun to see it. This is the tip of the iceberg."

Also in September, Concord, Mass.-based Psion Computers announced that it had begun running the PointBase Mobile Edition on its Series 5mx handheld computers. This may have been the first time a 100% pure Java SQL database has been run on a handheld device of any type. The PointBase Mobile Edition embedded DB can be configured in 100K of RAM.

In coming years, Scott expects to see two disparate IT development worlds converging, and possibly even merging, as the mobile and embedded database market matures.

"One of the things we've discovered over the past few months is that you have two worlds of people who have not traditionally communicated at all suddenly finding themselves forced together," said Scott. "You have enterprise application developers, who have a long history that ranges from mainframe computing to client/server computing to Internet computing. They understand networking and distributed applications, and they have an inherent understanding of the need for a database. No one who creates applications would argue that they want to manage their data on a flat file system. They see them [databases] as a basic component.

"Then you have the device people. They understand new chipset RTOSs [real-time operating systems], and they understand how to make things very small and how to deal with tiny little screens. But they're clueless about interconnecting applications and data management and synchronization," he added.

"Eventually, these two worlds will get together," said Scott. "They must begin communicating and, eventually, even merge. It's a great opportunity for both."

Don't forget the big boys

Pervasive Software is another important player in the embedded database space, with approximately 19% of the embedded database market in which applications are primarily marketed through VARs and OEMs. In October, the Austin, Texas-based company unveiled a new family of modular database engines called Pervasive.SQL 2000. Designed to allow developers to create and deploy small-footprint database applications, the new product family offers an "adaptable footprint architecture" that lets developers mix-and-match database components in tight spaces.

For its part, Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Centura Software Corp. has announced its eSnapp connectivity software, which links applications running on "information appliances" with corporate applications and databases. Information appliances include handheld and palmtop computers, smart phones, and even devices such as vending machines and gas pumps with built-in intelligence.

Armus is a Burlingame, Calif.-based manufacturer of health-care software that has been testing eSnapp. Armus provides the Centura technology to doctors at cardiopulmonary clinics who gather patient data on handheld computers and then use eSnapp to transmit the information to a central server for follow-up processing and reporting.

In addition, Centura recently announced the latest release of its Raima Database Manager (RDM) embeddable database software, which it gained via acquisition. RDM 5.0 includes the addition of "re-entrancy," which lets multiple processes simultaneously access database code, enhances cache synchronization and adds improvements to the lock manager that regulates concurrent access to the database.

The potential of the embedded database market has not escaped the notice of big enterprise-class players, however. Oracle Corp., for example, has made a move into this space with a cut-down version of its high-end relational database known as Oracle8i Lite. According to Denise Lahey, vice president of Oracle's mobile and embedded products division, Oracle8i Lite can be as small as 50K. (Oracle's Personal Oracle7 database is 8Mb, which is too big for many portable computers, let alone PDAs or embedded devices.)

Oracle is reportedly going after three database markets with its new 8i Lite product: laptop users who connect to headquarters to download the latest data, work and use applications offline, and then dial in again to update and sync-up with the corporate database; the embedded applications market; and makers of cell phones, PDAs and other handheld

Oracle is expected to combine its 8i Lite with its Project Panama technology to give users Web access. Project Panama is software that translates information on Web sites and then fits the data into the tiny screens of mobile devices. Like IBM, Oracle has made Oracle 8i Lite available free of charge and has similar alliances with 3COM and Puma, said an Oracle spokeswoman.

IBM Corp. has two offerings in the embedded database market: DB2 Universal Database Satellite Edition for large-scale laptop rollouts; and DB2 Everywhere, which runs on Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and 3COM's PalmOS. In August, the company began offering DB2 Everywhere as a free download from its Web site. That same month, Big Blue unveiled a beta version of VisualAge for Embedded Systems, a development tool for building embedded applications in Java that are smaller than 1Mb.

Coming late to the mobile and embedded database market is Microsoft, which has been flashing potential product offerings it has yet to release. At a Windows CE developer conference held in Denver last summer, the company demonstrated a Windows CE version of its SQL Server database. At the time, the product was not expected to be available even in beta form until the first quarter of 2000. Microsoft officials were also sanguine about the company's late arrival to a market that they viewed as nascent, with most players just arriving on the field.